The important lesson Rory McIlroy learned that led to his 20th PGA Tour win

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The man has 20 PGA Tour wins at 32 years old. Twenty. Think on that for a minute. Because with Rory McIlroy, the temptation is to view things through the lens of what he has not accomplished. It’s a shame, but an understandable one—he’s the most gifted player of the post-Tiger Woods era, and he feasted on majors in his younger years. It’s a recipe for the burden of expectation that weighs on a golfer. But part of it is self-inflicted. McIlroy has made the choice (mistake?) to adopt an unusually candid and vulnerable disposition. When he’s going through something, he tells everybody. He told us for years that golf doesn’t define him, and then he told us he uses that as a crutch. He cried at the Ryder Cup. It all results in so many golf fans feeling a parasocial connection to a man they have never met. Admit it, you feel like you know Rory.

But zoom out for a minute. Yes, McIlroy has been frustratingly feeble in majors of late, and yes, he’d probably have a fuller trophy cabinet if such pursuits consumed him. Divert your attention to the facts, devoid of narrative, and what you’ll see is remarkable. With a vintage display of devastating mastery, McIlroy followed up a Saturday 62 with the easiest 66 you ever did see at The Summit Club in Las Vegas—a pretty golf course that was quite clearly designed for high-rollers, not PGA Tour players. With that, he claimed a one-shot victory at the CJ Cup and joins Woods, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson as the only golfers younger than 55 years old with 20 victories.

Beneath the Rory-coaster lies an all-time great.

“What I thought was an achievement at the start of my career when I turned pro was to get into the top-20 in the world,” McIlroy said. “So I’ve surpassed all of that. But as you go on, your goals, you have to reframe everything, and you have to keep resetting your goals. As I’ve went along in my career, I’ve had to do that because you just, you keep going. You can’t just stagnate and stay the same, you have to try to keep getting better and keep doing more things.”

McIlroy has now won twice in 2021, last victorious at Quail Hollow and the Wells Fargo Championship in May. He was unremarkable in the five months afterward and tumbled outside the top 10 in the World Ranking, hard-to-believe territory for a man who was kissed by the golfing gods. How ironic, then, that he believes the semi-slump was borne of a self-belief crisis.

“I feel like the last couple weeks I’ve realized that just being me is good enough and maybe the last few months I was trying … not trying to be someone else, but maybe trying to add things to my game or take things away from my game. I know that when I do the things that I do well, this is what I’m capable of. I’m capable of winning a lot of events on the PGA Tour and being the best player in the world.”

He began Sunday two shots behind Rickie Fowler, the man who was supposed to keep pace with McIlroy in the hardware department. Golf, as it so often does, had other plans. Fowler has not won a tournament in 33 months and hasn’t been close, either. As the world No. 128, he needed a sponsor’s invite to get into the field. Forget the Masters; dude’s not even exempt for The Players, which he won for the biggest of his five career tour wins in 2015. This, then, was an extraordinary opportunity to cut a huge corner on the comeback trail. No one mistook this for a major—everyone in the field gets paid, the course was woefully over-matched and the wind that promised to show face Sunday succumbed to a Vegas hangover and stay in bed—but 15 of the world’s top 20 teed it up, and nearly all 15 of the world’s top 20 means something in any context.

It was the world No. 3 who threatened to crash the party with a blistering spell on his home course. Collin Morikawa played his first 11 holes in eight under par, but only those lucky few on-site were able to witness it. Fall events fall victim to NFL football, and the PGA Tour Champions event went into a playoff to shrink short Golf Channel coverage window even further. When the good stuff did finally find the airwaves, Morikawa he hit a wall that so often greets red-hot players when they begin to sniff a trophy. It wasn’t a big wall—he parred six holes in a row before a closing eagle, but such barren stretches simply would not suffice at Summit. He signed for 62, which he equals his best round at his stomping grounds. He shot one while casually riding in a cart and he shot the other while in contention on Sunday of a tour event. That says something profound about how these men are wired.

“I pretty much knew the course like the back of my hand,” Morikawa said. “Normally, I’m taking a lot of notes in my yardage book drawing arrows, drawing Xs, but didn’t do that this week. I just went out and played like I normally would.

Fowler’s putter got cold, which torpedoed his chances, but he still achieved the highly elusive feat of leaving Las Vegas feeling better than when he arrived.

“It’s definitely nice. It felt good to finally hit the golf ball properly, at least most of the time, for 72 holes,” Fowler said after finishing tied for third. “A lot of quality shots, a lot of good swings this week. Drove the ball well, which set me up to play golf around this place.”

Morikawa’s closing eagle brought his total to 24 under. It might’ve been enough had McIlroy not holed a 35-footer for eagle on 15, which allowed him to play conservative off the tee on both 17 (hybrid) and 18 (3-wood). Conservative targets, that is, for those were not conservative swings. McIlroy was at his swaggering best on this windless afternoon, bouncing around the golf course like he used to as a pudgy 21-year-old. But there was a twist—McIlroy led the field in strokes gained/putting for just the second time in his career. The other was the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational. He won that, too. When a generationally good ball-striker stumbles upon a hot putter … well, Aaron Oberholser said it best on the broadcast: “When Rory McIlroy is playing like this, it’s like every other guy in the field brought a knife to a gun fight.”

Remember afternoons like this one, when McIlroy makes this game look impossibly easy, the next time you’re crushed by one of his opening-round 73s at Augusta. Recall the victories the next time he cries in an interview and you play armchair psychologist. You have your answer for the next time you ask yourself What’s wrong with Rory? Nothing. Nothing at all. Golf is hard, professional golf is harder, and winning is the hardest. He’s now done that 20 times. Instead of focusing on what he’s not, take a tip from Rory and focus on what he is.

“I think part of the emotion at the end of [the Ryder Cup] was to do with that week, but it was also probably to do with the last few months in terms of searching to try to get better and the realization that I don’t need to search for anything. It’s all right here.”

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